Israel is under fire again for alleged settlement expansion, this time in a report by an Israeli watchdog group. The settlers are crying foul.
Israel's dovish Peace Now movement denies claims by the right-wing Israeli government that it has imposed a partial settlement freeze in the West Bank. Last week, Israel won praise from U.S. President Barack Obama when it said it has not approved any new housing projects in the West Bank since Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu took office five months ago.
Peace Now chairman Yariv Openheimer says Israel is trying to fool the United States, which sees settlement expansion as an obstacle to peace.
"Our report shows that the construction in the settlements never stopped and this is not a settlement freeze," Matar said.
Openheimer says that while new projects are on hold, settlers can easily build thousands of apartments and homes based on old plans that have already been approved. There is existing permission for the construction of up to 40,000 housing units, according to Peace Now, and construction on 600 began this year.
Peace Now has infuriated the settlers and their supporters. Last week, Israel's Deputy Prime Minister Moshe Ya'alon set off a storm when he described the group as a "virus." Pro-settlement activist Nadia Matar accused the Israeli watchdog group of being anti-Israeli.
"As an organization funded by anti-Jewish and anti-Israeli groups abroad with a lot, a lot of money, Peace Now are promoting the agenda of the Arab enemy and incite against the Jews," Matar said.
The settlement issue will be high on the agenda this week, when Prime Minister Netanyahu holds a series of high-level talks in Europe. He will be meeting U.S. Middle East envoy George Mitchell as well as the leaders of Britain and Germany.